In a changing world, a rethink of India’s foreign policy
A thought-provoking paper recently released by the Centre for Policy Research, whose authors include former national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, and former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, argues the need to rethink India’s foreign policy and strategic priorities to better fit in with a changing world. How easy will that be? And how likely under the present government?
The paper says, “The foundational source of India’s influence in the world… rests on four pillars: domestic economic growth, social inclusion, political democracy and a broadly liberal constitutional order.” Today, each of those pillars is wobbling.
Even if economic growth can be raised to 7% and 8% levels — though many believe that’s unlikely in the predictable future — the slide in India’s democracy, social inclusion, and liberal constitutional order is unlikely to reverse under the present government. Indeed, if it wins again in 2024, the situation could deteriorate further. That means whatever rethinking is necessary to adapt India’s foreign policy has to happen against the background of a diminished India, economically and democratically. This makes the challenge even greater.
Now, the study accepts that “the China challenge is likely to be the most significant… in the coming decade… (and) India’s China policy must now be reset to the reality of a live border and of antagonistic political relations”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t elaborate.
There are, however, two clear hints. First, “The China challenge makes working with regional Asian powers like Iran, Turkey and Russia ever more important”. This means we must rethink our concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Pakistan, and Iran’s with China. The other suggestion is to leverage “close partnerships with the US, Europe and Japan”. If that means aligning more closely with the West vis-à-vis China, it’s clearly already happening.
On the United States, the paper poses the question of whether “the foundational defence agreements… and increasing reliance on US weapon systems, intelligence and military doctrines… open[ed] new vulnerabilities and [do] they actually fit India’s strategic imperatives”? Again, the question is not really answered. But, once again, there are two suggestions.
First, Quad should be expanded to include Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam. That will certainly strengthen its capacity to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, but it doesn’t focus on India’s greater concern, which is the Chinese threat to the north and the west.
The second is about handling the US-China rivalry. “The ideal position… would be to have better bilateral relations individually with both the US and China than they have with each other.” Now, India can easily have better relations with the US than the US has with China, but can we have better relations with China than China has with America?
The most interesting part of the study concerns our immediate neighbourhood. India can only achieve great power status if it can succeed here. The problem is “China’s willingness to intervene in the domestic politics of India’s neighbours” and its enormous capacity to do so.
This is where the paper’s recommendations are truly radical.
First, we must separate “domestic political and ideological considerations” from relations with our neighbours. But given how much benefit the Narendra Modi government gets from bashing Pakistan and, often, Bangladesh, is that likely?
Second, “India should do what China simply cannot i.e. build regional links, open its markets, schools and services to the neighbours and become a source of economic and political stability in the sub-continent”. But how do we do that without changing our relationship with Pakistan?
This is a bullet the paper readily bites. “Cross-border terrorism from Pakistan has not derailed India’s economic progress, nor has it undermined its political stability, including in Jammu and Kashmir. It is not, therefore, an over-arching threat.” The paper also says India should stop spurning the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). Otherwise, there’s a danger this could open the door to Chinese membership.
I’d be very surprised if the Modi government agrees. That’s why I flagged my doubts in the first paragraph. This paper proposes a rethink that’s necessary but, regrettably, it’s also unlikely.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal